How should Malaysia read the Jakarta “sweep” for its nationals?

Wrote this piece on request for a Malaysian newspaper but they had to hold it for a day and then decided not to run it because relations between Malaysia and Indonesia have “cooled down”. Could never figure out what the roles of the media should be in such times but it’s their right. So, since I had gone to all that trouble of writing it I might as well post it here:

Screen Grab of Metro TV broadcast from

What is Malaysia to make of the roadblock in Jakarta yesterday in which some Indonesian ultra nationalists,

Screen Grab of Metro TV broadcast from

armed with sharpened bamboo poles,  set up a roadblock in Jakarta to look for Malaysians?

On one level, nothing much. Demonstrations like these pop up and disappear in Jakarta all the time without anyone being the wiser who actually organized them, why, what they got out of it or why they stopped as mysteriously as they started. Often such demonstrations have to do with a group wanting to extort money, vent their frustrations or prove a point.

On another level, Malaysia needs to come clean about its concept of what’s Malay because it clashes with the Indonesian concept. Failure to address this would result in future spats and embarrassments as Indonesia accuses Malaysia of “stealing” its songs, culture and traditions.

To Indonesians, Malay is an ethnic group that exists in Riau and a small part of Kalimantan.  They  are an ethnic group, not a race and things “belonging” to the Melayu are dances such as the Tarian Lilin…… The Melayu, in Indonesia, is no different than other ethnic  groups like Sundanese, Batak, Balinese, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese. Each have their own ethnic identity but they are all Indonesians and are equal before the Constitution and the law.

In Malaysia, however, the word Malay is understood differently. Under its Constitution, Malay is defined as a race, or to be more precise an ethno-religious group since you have to be Muslim to be Malay. Under this definition virtually anyone that’s not Chinese, Indian or of any other distinctive ethnic grouping in Malaysia is considered Malay, if they are Muslim.

Hence you have people who are distinctively Indian Muslims (example, Mahathir), Arab Muslims (Hussein Onn) and Sulawesi Muslims (Najib) being considered Malay. From there it is only a small leap of logic to claim that any culture belonging to them also belongs to the Malay race, and hence to Malaysia.

This is not necessarily wrong but it infuriates in the Indonesians, most of whom have been educated from school to recognize and appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the nation of Indonesia. Indonesians are understandably proud of this culture and the nation’s diversity and therefore irritated if they perceive someone as claiming any of that as their own.

Irritation, however, doesn’t explain the anger and even malice that has marked some Indonesian anti-Malaysia actions of late, such as the cyber attack of Malaysian websites on the Malaysian Independence Day on August 31, and the “sweeping” roadblock looking for Malaysians in Jakarta yesterday.

What may help explain these actions, however, is the saying that the basis of all enmity is a feeling of being slighted. Where many Indonesians are concerned they have been constantly slighted as they feel that Malaysia constantly looks down on them as a nation of domestic helpers, construction workers and criminal elements. They feel even more slighted when they read reports of domestic helpers being abused by their Malaysian employers.

To make things worse, their feelings of being slighted are being compounded with a sense of helplessness, largely because their own government seems incapable of looking after their rights and interests.

Thus when Indonesia lost Sipadan to Malaysia, the anger was directed at Malaysia but the nagging feeling was that Indonesia could have done better to fortify its claims and to provide a better argument at The Hague.

Each time a maid was physically abused  by a Malaysian employer, the anger was ostensibly directed at Malaysia but lurking at the back of their minds was the nonchalance and impotence of their own government to protect their rights of its workers abroad.

When Malaysia used songs such as Rasa Sayange and dances such as the Reog Ponorogo and the Pendet dance to promote Malaysian tourism, Indonesians railed against Malaysia but deep down they decry their own government’s inability to promote, market and “own” their own culture more.

What then should Malaysia do to diffuse such situations in the future? There is nothing it can do with how the Indonesian Government does or doesn’t do to take care of the rights of its citizens and to market and protect its cultural heritage, but it can do something about how Malaysians relate to Indonesians.

The first is an honest examination of what constitutes Malaysian and Malay culture. But this would require delving into the very heart of Malayness and it would take a minor miracle of political will to make this happen.

The second is to educate Malaysians, starting from the Tourism Ministry up, the traditions and cultures of its neighbors. If Malaysian producers were more educated in this respect they would not have made the mistake of thinking that the distinctively Balinese Pendet dance was Malaysian.

The third is to realize that the Indonesians think, with some justification, that Malaysians are arrogant and look down on Indonesians. The government from ministers down to those in the front line of interfacing with Indonesians such as immigration officers, need cultural sensitivity training.

They need to be educated that their exposure of Indonesians has largely been conditioned by exposure to the lower strata of society, that Indonesians like people everywhere, have their middle and upper classes that are no different from themselves.

It is only when Malaysia is able to do all these that the friction points with its neighbor will be reduced. Anything less and we’ll be bickering until the cows come home.

25 thoughts on “How should Malaysia read the Jakarta “sweep” for its nationals?

Add yours

  1. If the Malaysian government can’t even convince the country what 1Malaysia (touted so widely by Najib) really means, how can they define what “Malay” means?

    There are so many prominent Malaysians of Indonesian heritage. Why are they keeping quiet? Ask them!


  2. Wait.. is the writer Indonesian? tell you what… a lot of Malaysians are jealous of Indonesian. Indonesia is a much more liberal, open minded and pure multi racial country. Malaysia is an extremist country. Don’t believe? Come and see for yourself.


  3. That’s weak sauce by them, Unspun.

    “Cooled down” does not mean “problem solved”, regardless of how much the government on either side wishes it were so. It’s a good piece and it should’ve run.


  4. it takes two to tango.. Malaysians would be unable to change their stereotypical views of the lowly Indonesians if what we see everyday is enhancing that stereotypical perceptions… they are the maids who caused so much problems, stealing, dishonest, cheating etc. They are the construction workers who occupied illegal lands, erected illegal structures in illegal areas or jungles, stealing water and electricity, they are the one breaking into people houses, with parangs and just wearing underwear… of course we don’t see those highly educated ones with middle class or even wealthy lifestyles… because they are there…

    the fact is that we should stop this assumption that we are of the same people… and we must accept that large number of Indonesian population are uneducated and tehrefore could not understand the importance of neighbourly relations. they are also easily emotional and prone to irrational acts… guided by the promises of money/food, they are easier to be manipulated or influenced… that my friend should be the job of their government.. to raise the people’s level of education.

    However, Indonesia’s geographical expanse and sparseness at certain hard to reach areas would mean that the job will not be easy and will be hard to achieve in the long run…

    what can Malaysia do.. just like what other countries have been doing, Singapore, United States, Dutch, … we should buy with money/material/influence certain important sectors of Indonesian societies and manipulate them for our benefit… that’s the only way and the only answer..


    1. peminatrocky,

      This is small example of Malaysian arrogance, yet pitiful. I hope the author of this comment is still alive, because the comment was made in 2009 and there is many improvements in Indonesia till today.

      Today in 2012, Indonesia is the member of G20, and the only member from SE Asia, and Indonesia is the upcoming member of BRICS. Where is the so called Malaysian domination in Indonesia today? gimme a break, I’m yawning here. Do we still upset with Malaysian silly behavior? Indeed, and big YES.

      in 2012, Indonesian is always and always think that Malaysia is only small arrogant country, talking big for nothing, and we pray for the best for you. Amen.

      ps: Malaysians can save old fashioned slogan : saudara serumpun for their kids, not for us, Indonesians, we have done with it, and we’re not buying it anymore. Thank you.


  5. It’s difficult to change the Malaysian’s general negative perception of Indonesian as lowly pay maids, construction workers, illegal immigrants, thieves & robbers.. because our media also highlight those successful police hunt & kill of dangerous/ armed Indonesian robbers in TV & newspapers. Other than that Malaysians generally donot get in touch with those “good” Indonesians, educated or well-to-do Indonesians here.

    Just like many many years ago, Malaysians were perceived as drug traffickers in Europe especially in Holland; or Singaporean think that hardcore & dangerous criminals in Changi prison are mostly Malaysians.

    Only those who have been to Indonesia or better still, stayed & keep in touch with Indonesians for years like Unspun would be able to understand the Indonesians well.


  6. your article wrote about educating the malaysians..
    but how to educate both..?
    i would love to get to know indonesian in malaysia, but for some reason we cannot trust ppl easily..
    i’ve seen the indonesians fighting among themselves and bleeding while running at the mall’s is scary..
    how could you blame us to have that negative perception?

    some of the indonesians here are good worker..even our maid is indonesian. we treat her like a family, let her outing every weekend, even calls her with ‘sis’ n she doesnt need to call us ‘tuan’..

    both country should solve this matter and have a serious discussion on the table.. the riot may make it worse..
    both of us need to learn ‘respects’.


  7. I find the article and comments very irritating, distasteful and disconnected. I and almost all of my friends never and don’t look down on Indonesians. You know why? Coz we regard them as Malay n from t same rumpun. A number of us can still trace their lineage from Indonesia.

    Why we define Malay generally is a product of history. If all ethnic Indonesians form just a majority of population n t Dutch brought in other people from other country and live separately and not intergrate and assimilate w t existing local culture, I think Indonesians will probably adopt t same culture. We in Malaysia have lived separately w each practicing different culture, language and even separated into different schools from young. Polarization so evident that each don’t want to give in to another even until today.


    1. Ellese, while it is great if you and your friends do not look down on Indonesians, you have to understand that this is not always the case with all Malaysians. It is hard to deny that many Malaysians have an arrogant outlook towards their southern neighbours. An example is the amount of abuse that goes on behind closed doors towards Indonesian maids.

      While many countries have traditions of rivalry or mocking towards their neighbours – Australia towards New Zealand, or the English towards the Welsh, for example – the economic differences between Malaysia and Indonesia exacerbate this. The majority of Indonesians encountered by Malaysians are lowly-paid and largely uneducated workers from poor backgrounds, which can foster a sense of superiority among the richer Malaysians. Add to that the usual xenophobic resentments that occur when migrant workers enter a wealthier country, and you have a clearer picture of why Indonesians feel hard done by.


  8. peminatrocky , “….. what can Malaysia do.. just like what other countries have been doing, Singapore, United States, Dutch, … we should buy with money/material/influence certain important sectors of Indonesian societies and manipulate them for our benefit… that’s the only way and the only answer..”

    This is another example of arrogance, and what is the benefit of being one? Let us find ways to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding. The future is full with uncertainty, if this article is right, you will regret what you have said.


  9. The Malays in Malaysia consist of Javanese, Bugis, Minangkabau, Riau, Majapahit and some other part of Indonesian Islands. The great, great, great grandparents are from Indonesian Islands… That’s why the cultures are the same… The name of the places or towns are are similar… Even the late Adam Malik have decendance in Perak.. So dont blame the Malays in Malaysia… Indonesians are blind in history of the past since the Parameswara migration to Tanah Melayu and open Melaka.


    1. Sop,

      Kita ngerti kesilapan sepihak oleh Discovery Channel itu. Tapi bagi masyarakat Indon yang berancak-ancak itu, udah dibayar uang untuk melaku ugut-ugutan itu, kesilapan pihak mana pon tidak bermaksud apa-apa.. asal uangnya dibayar deh… ya udah… disuruh ngebom pon bisa.. asal ada uangnya….


  10. I have never seen the reog in Malaysia, I come from Johor with a large Javanese population. The kuda kepang, yes. Can anyone tell me how the controversy over the reog erupted?


  11. Francine,

    I have different opinion with you.

    It started by Malaysia in Feb. 2005 when some Malaysian naval vessels showed their barbarian act to our people at Karang Unarang (Ambalat). Relations were further complicated by other incidents (especially by the latest incident in May 2009 in Ambalat) and also unclear position of our gov’t (especially SBY).

    Please note that there will be no anger here if our gov’t (SBY) can show their firm/clear position and determination to stop the provocation by Malaysia since the first incident in Feb. 2005.


    1. The Spirit of Freedom,

      I think you are very wrong on this. It started way-way back in the 60’s when we were targetted by the Ganyang Malaysia campaign. We don’t forget.


  12. @ unspun,

    Could you provide a link to this Indonesian Dream blog? is not registered, and has not been updated since.. August last year. Looks like wherever the site is, they have interesting screen grabs at the very least.



  13. I find it very disturbing fact when most of Malaysians’ great grand parents are from Indonesia then it is okay to say that everything Indonesian – in terms of culture – are also Malaysians.

    If you come to Jakarta, the Jakarta people still say food with its origin, say Pempek Palembang, or Gudeg Yogya, or Rendang Padang. Although the palembangnese or yogyanese that brought the food have lived in Jakarta for century, never ever Jakartans will claim that the food is originally from Jakarta.

    I think this is quite logic. It’s just about awareness of ethnic culture again. Please dont come back and say “we are serumpun”. It is like asking the culture-aware indonesians to be culture blind, very much of an educational step back.


  14. Maybe in Malaysia, “Melayu” is a ‘Bangsa’ not ‘Suku’. Like Indonesians see “Indonesia” as a ‘Bangsa’ and “Melayu” as a ‘Suku’.

    We in Malaysia have not as a culture come to terms with the expression “Bangsa Malaysia”. Even the Federal Consitution of Malaysia defines ‘Melayu’ as; Speaker of the Malay Language, Practising Malay Culture and Professing the Islamic Religion.

    It is not surprising therefore when Malays extend their definition that Malays are muslims to ‘Arabs are Muslims’ and ‘Indonesians are Muslims’ and are surprised that there can be Christian Arabs or Christian Javanese.

    Thus Malaysians tend to treat the term ‘Melayu’ the way Indonesians treat the term ‘Bangsa Indonesia’ vis a vis ‘Berlainan suku tetapi satu jua’.

    Thus there are Malays of “pure Malay stock” most of whom trace their race and heritage back to Nusantara: Indonesia (making up the largest stock), Thailand, Philipines, Singapore or Cambodia.

    Thus we have “Melayu Jawa”, “Melayu Minang”, “Melayu Aceh”.

    Or The Melaka Empire and Colonial Malaya being what it was, we have Malays of Chinese, Indian, Arabic, English or even Turkish stock all Under the term “Malay”.

    In fact we even have Chinese Muslims and Indian Muslims who inter-marry and having children who are accepted and registered as “Malay”.

    Thus in Malaysia It is not surprising to find Malays of all kinds of skin tones, build slant of eyes and even while speaking the same Malay language but having different ‘patois’ or ‘telor’.

    Thus we have cultures practised, created, borrowed or assimilated, food that are; attributed to the ‘States’ Sabah to Perlis; attributed stock origin or decent; all being seen as the larger umbrella of ‘Malay Culture’ as understood by Malaysian.

    In the last five years Malaysia has welcomed and assimilated in whatever manner a significant number of peoples: Bosnians; Palestinian; Africans; Arabs: Yemeni, Lebanese, Egyptians; Indians; Bangladeshi; Thai; Cambodians; Phillipinas etc, and yes many Indonesians.

    Their children have attended Malaysian school and will one day inter-marry as our forefathers did.

    I said my marriage vows according to Islamic precepts but in a very much Hindu Cultural Practise setting, the food served later was Mughal, the Reception was very much western with Royal Malay influence.

    My upbringing have been very much western with Malay undertones with enough islamic religion to ease the guilt.

    We have not taught our daughter sufficient Malay do’s and don’ts or Pantang Larang. She speaks more English than Malay. She doesn’t know how to request permission to pass, bending with her right hand by her knee before passing bay her elders. She doesn’t know that she should only speak when she is spoken to by her elders. She doesn’t know that she should never sit pointing her feet at her elder’s.

    My daughter is in her eyes is still Malay albeit paternally: she is Malay Descent(Grandma Gayah’s Mum), Punjabi Descent(Grandma Gayah’s Dad), Minang Descent(Grandpa Ghazali’s Parents), maternally: she is Javanese Descent(Grandma Fatimah’s Parents) and Arab Descent(Grandpa Ahmat’s Parents).

    Culturally we are whatever we practise and whatever Malaysia serves to us and mostly whatever we bother to defend and find if any… we are 1Malaysia.


  15. masalahnya melayu secara budaya memang bukanlah nama bangsa tetapi nama suku.. sejak jaman dahulu masyarakat nusantara mengetahui melayu sebagai sebuah suku bukan bangsa seperti halnya suku jawa, padang dan lainnya.. melayu sebagai sebuah bangsa hanyalah buatan pemerintah malaysia untuk kepentingan politik sepertinya yakni mempertahankan mayoritas kelompok melayu disananya.. namun saya juga tidak menganggapnya salah itu urusan negara anda.. menjadi masalah ketika anda membawa pemikiran melayu sebagai bangsa ke luar wilayah malaysia.. pasti akan terjadi konflik karena pada dasarnya pemikiran teresebut hanya rekaan pemerintah anda yang negara2 lain di wilayah nusantara pasti tidak akan menerima.. maslahnya malaysia sepertinya berusaha memaksakan pemikiran rekaannya tentang bangsa malaysia tersebut ke negara-negara lainnya di wilayah nusantara.. inilah yang membuat konflik budaya antara malaysia dengan indonesia..


  16. Saya hairan dan terkejut atas tindakan ekstremis BENDERA. Kami di sabah selama ini hidup harmoni dengan warga indonesia yang bertandang ke sini. Untuk pengetahuan semua, kebanyakan warga indonesia yang menetap di sabah mempunyai keluarga angkat yang sangat akrab malah ada yang dianggap sudah seperti keluarga sendiri. Tidak tahulah kalau sebaliknya berlaku di semenanjung malaysia atau di indonesia sendiri.

    Untuk info juga, lebih ramai warga indonesia yang berjaya di sabah dan mungkin juga di sarawak sebagai ahli perniagaan. Dahulunya mereka bermula sebagai penjual pisang goreng, penjual sayur, peniaga pasar malam atau berkebun kini menjadi golongan yang berkemampuan dan memiliki harta sama atau lebih tinggi nilainya seperti golongan pertengahan rakyat malaysia yang lain.. Jadi apakah persepsi warga indonesia ditindas dan dikasari itu berlaku sepenuhnya (100%)??? Pendapat saya ialah memang terdapatnya kes penindasan terhadap pekerja warga indonesia, tetapi ianya sama sahaja terhadap warga malaysia yang ditindas oleh majikan mereka yang juga letaknya di tanah malaysia sendiri!

    Adakah kita serumpun???
    Mungkin juga jika saya orang melayu.. tetapi hakikatnya saya adalah kacukan dusun dan brunei.. TETAPI saya masih boleh bertoleransi dan menghormati perasaaan, budaya dan pemikiran warga indonesia yang bertandang ke malaysia. Malah kita tidak perlu serumpun pun jika ingin hidup aman… Dengan perasaan kasih sayang, saling menghormati, kerjasama, saling mempercayai serta kerjasama yang erat pastinya membuahkan talian persaudaraan yang erat walaupun berlainan rumpun…

    Perebutan Sempadan???
    Itu adalah perkara biasa bagi negara yang berjiran. Pastinya tidak ada satu pihak pun yang akan membiarkan miliknya diambil orang..

    Masakan Rendang???
    Kami di malaysia percaya kebanyakan masakan melayu berasal daripada indonesia.. Hakikatnya masakan di alaf baru ini banyak berorientasikan FUSION yakni gabungan citarasa, budaya, cara, dan bermacam-macam lagi.. Sebab itulah wujudnya rendang tok, rendang kemboja, dan bermacam2 rendang alaf baru yang makin popular dikalangan pelancung.. Maka adakah masakan ini patut menjadi alasan utama sesebuah negara untuk menyerang jirannya?..

    Pasal Tarian???
    entahlah, di malaysia sendiri ada bermacam-macam tarian. Tetapi setahu saya tarian melayu kebanyakannya berasal dari indonesia juga.. Lain pula hahnya tarian kaum dusun yang dipercayai ada hubung kait dengan tanah besar cina..

    Harapan saya agar kedua-dua kerajaan dan pemimpin memainkan peranan dalam meredakan kemarahan dan provokasi antara Malaysia dan Indonesia!!! Jangan biarkan perang meletus disebabkan angkara remeh temeh!


  17. the malay-ness in Malaysia is a political construct and not based on culture. the malaysian constitution clearly states that a person is a malay if he practices the malay culture etc etc. what is exactly a malay culture when you have achehnese, minang, javanese, turkish, bugis in malaysia. how do we lump all of that together and say for sure these are actually malay people & practising malay culture. the assimilation must have been really good and effective for this to happen.


  18. “the malay-ness in Malaysia is a political construct and not based on culture.” This is in fact the root problem. In trying to maintain a facade of being authentically malay, the politically constructed malay tries to be come more malay than the authentic malay.


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